How to Set Boundaries Around Your Weight

Going home during the holiday season is supposed to feel like a respite — a time to unwind, relax, and be comforted by home-cooked food and the loving arms of your family. But what if your mom, dad, or other family members are overly critical of your appearance? Do they constantly criticize what you eat, or comment on your weight? The whole experience of going home can turn from something that should bring comfort to a source of emotional triggers, leaving you wanting to avoid the visit at all. 

I’ve lost count of the amount of times my friends have asked me how to approach their overbearing mother when they return home for the holidays.

“I’m sick of her commenting on every morsel that passes my lips,” they say.

Exasperated, they ask me how they can stop family members telling them that they’ll gain weight if they eat that slice of cake, or that they should focus on dropping a few pounds in the new year.

This kind of criticism can be really damaging to a person’s self-esteem. We can end up feeling like our body is a standing agenda item for people to discuss. Treating us that way is like equating our worth to how acceptable we look.

I’m sure that if our families knew that their overbearing and critical behavior was actually demeaning us, they’d be mortified. But the reality is that these kinds of comments can be very harmful — mostly because they reinforce negative beliefs we already have about ourselves. Such critical comments can lead to our harming ourselves by reaching for food or other substances to self-soothe because we feel inadequate and ashamed of our bodies.

Perhaps some of us think we haven’t earned the right to speak up because of the pain we’ve caused our families while we were suffering with addiction. That’s not true. Yes, we likely hurt our families, but part of the recovery process is recovering the ability to live a fulfilling and respectful life — and we must first start with respecting ourselves. That means speaking up when something upsets us.

Intuitive eating coach Tiffany Thoen says, “Setting boundaries can be challenging and scary. If you are working on accepting your body, eating in a way that is more in tune with your body’s needs, or simply are tired of body-and food-focused comments you get from your family, it is helpful to be prepared to set some boundaries.”

She continues, “The holidays can be stressful for many reasons, but one of the hardest to work through is the family dynamic around food and body image. A well-intentioned comment can cause us unnecessary pain and even shame. Keep reading to learn ways to set boundaries with your family (or even friends) this holiday season so you can simply enjoy your gatherings.”

How to set boundaries

I know that setting boundaries with loved ones is hard, especially when we don’t want to hurt their feelings. But the desire to protect our needs and heal our relationship with our body must come first. We absolutely can empower ourselves to tell others the ways we want to be treated — this is one of the main tools we have in rebuilding our self-esteem.

Here are some top tips for boundary setting:

  • Determine triggers. In preparation for setting boundaries, it might be helpful to first consider which situations you find triggering. Is it comments about your appearance or comments on what you are eating that upset you? Or something else?
  • What is your boundary and how will you set it? Next, consider the ways in which you want to set this boundary: do you want to call ahead? Or can you visit with a family member before the holidays? Coach Tiffany suggests that you tell them what you don’t want to discuss. She says: “Be specific. State what comments you will no longer tolerate. For example, comments such as ‘Are you sure you want to eat that?’ or ‘You look like you’ve put on weight,’ ‘I made these cookies especially for you, you have to eat one!’ or even ‘You look great’ can all lead to us feeling stress and shame about food or our bodies.”
  • Decide on consequences. Consider what you’ll do if the person violates your boundary. Think of some consequences. You can remind them of the boundary, decline to continue the conversation, or leave altogether.
  • Ask for help and support. It’s important to explain to the person that you understand they care for you. Approaching it in this way may make the person feel less defensive and more like you are asking for their support.
  • Thank them and reinforce. If the person agrees to your boundary, thank them. You can tell them that you may have to remind them if they slip into their old habits.
  • Understand that some people will object. Know that some people will react to your setting a boundary. This is particularly common in those who don’t understand appropriate behavior or those who are a little codependent. And that’s okay — everyone has a right to determine what works for them. This is where you would explain, in a non-threatening way, the consequences you’ve previously considered.
  • Follow through. Perhaps most importantly, it’s crucial that you follow through with your boundary. Otherwise, people may not take future boundaries seriously. This also allows you to build respect for and trust in yourself — you are showing your body that you care for yourself more than other people’s hurt feelings or their desire to talk about you.

This may feel like a big step for you, but it is absolutely possible. The medium- and long-term gains well exceed the momentary discomfort. And you will be so grateful that you cared for yourself in this way.

We get to decide how others treat us, not the other way around.

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